Setting the tone at the 2008 Israeli Presidential ConferenceThe below article was published in GoJerusalem.com's Winter 2009-2010 issue of our Everything Jerusalem guide book, which was published on the occasion of the second annual Israeli Presidential Conference, via sponsorship from the Municipality of Jerusalem.
The below article was published in GoJerusalem.com's Winter 2009-2010 issue of our Everything Jerusalem guide book, which was published on the occasion of the second annual Israeli Presidential Conference, via sponsorship from the Municipality of Jerusalem.
How does a young nation know that it has secured its place on the map, that its well-being is the concern of influential world leaders, that it is welcome in circles of power? Israel has, of course, never lacked the attention of the world; few states have been born to quite so much sound and fury, and even fewer populate themselves by drawing in a downtrodden and widely-scattered ancient people from across the breadth of the Earth. But constant world-wide attention will not suffice for ensuring a country's standing in the world order - instead, its people must prove their significance and their worth to their fellow men.
Upon the occasion of its sixtieth birthday last year, Israel frankly asked the world whether it mattered, whether it had made of its rocky beginnings in an overlooked corner of the planet a nation of true value, a nation that would have a hand in charting the course of human civilization in an increasingly global era. And at the 2008 Israeli Presidential Conference in the Jewish people's ancient Holy City of Jerusalem, capital of modern Israel, a host of the world's greatest minds answered resoundingly in the affirmative.
Consider it a positive commentary on the national character that when Israel turned sixty, she elected to commemorate the occasion not by peering back into its often tumultuous past, but by boldly casting its gaze towards an optimistic future. The Presidential Conference, subtitled "Facing Forward," drew to Jerusalem scores of politicians, intellectuals, inventors and moguls, Jew and non-Jew alike, from all corners of the world, perse in background and belief and uniformly committed to seeing Israel continue to flourish as the 21st century takes shape.
The three-day event was ably hosted by a man perhaps more qualified than any other to sum up the nation's breathlessly eventful decades and reckon its successes and its shortcomings: President Shimon Peres, one of the last of the Zionist old guard, a freedom fighter turned politician counted high among those luminaries who shepherded Israel's transformation from scrappy, battle-wearied refugee state to paragon of functioning Middle Eastern democracy and global economic, scientific, diplomatic and academic leader.
The President's guests comprised perhaps the greatest conglomeration of global minds to ever grace the capital city, a red carpet-worthy assemblage of friends in high places, attesting by their mere presence to Israel's status as a major global player in business and finance, developing technology and the arts. The Binyanei HaUma International Convention Center hummed with activity as a massive staff made Jerusalem ready for her most distinguished guests, and every single one of the city's major hotels reported full capacity.
Notable attendees from the political sphere included, among others, then-sitting United States President George W. Bush; the last head of state of the former USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; former US Secretary of State, political strategist and perennial pundit Dr. Henry Kissinger; and, impressively, Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country with which Israel has no formal relations.
The very best and brightest of international business and technology were represented by Sergey Brin, the young Russian Jewish immigrant who co-founded all-encompassing Internet titan Google; Susan Decker and Terry Semel, the former president and CEO, respectively, of Yahoo!; Rupert Murdoch, the Australian news mogul who founded the FOX Network and whose News Corporation owns numerous noteworthy international newspapers and television channels; and Ratan Naval Tata, Indian mogul and chairman of the far-reaching conglomerate the Tata Group. A host of Jewish literary and intellectual talents also lent their views, among them French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, author Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated), author Nathan Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges) and Harvard professor and noted attorney, activist and author Alan Dershowitz.
As Facing Tomorrow began, President Peres charged the attendees with "examining, confronting and responding to three intertwining futures: the global tomorrow, the Jewish tomorrow, and the Israeli tomorrow," exhorting them to meet the challenges all three tomorrows with "the leadership necessary to navigate the challenges ahead, the values that are meant to guide our journey, and the creativity required to embrace the new and keep pace with a rapidly changing world" - ambitious goals for an exceedingly brief conference, but nonetheless handily met.
Diplomats and pundits discoursed in a series of panels focusing on the future of the world economy, drastic changes in the geopolitical status quo (as Asia begins to assert itself against the West and Russia once again makes its presence known), the elusive "New Middle East," the negligible results of the Middle Eastern peace process in the last two decades, and the efficacy of global institutions at addressing transnational issues. Jewish thinkers, Israeli and Diaspora, secular and religious, Reform to Orthodox, wondered whether Semitic civilization is thriving or declining and whether Jewish identity is fading away or merely reshaping itself along modern parameters, explored the place of the Diaspora in modern Zionism and the meaning of a Jewish state, and pondered the extent of Jewish tradition's relevance in modern times.
Israel's leading doctors and bioethicists picked over the unprecedented ethical issues, both in secular and religious spheres, being raised by medical advances at which Israel is often at the forefront, especially stem cell research. And the assembled business leaders looked back at Israel's history of technological innovation, discussing ways to ensure the flow of scientific advances from the Jewish state, and ways to further involve Israel in the complex web of global finance.
And naturally, Israel being Israel, no gala event is complete without elaborate song-and-dance spectacles. The United States' special relationship with Israel was commemorated for the benefit of President Bush in a most unique manner: an interpretive pas de deux with dancers representing the two nations leaping about to the song "You've Got a Friend."
By the time the assorted leaders of state, business, academia and technology jetted off back to their home nations, the city of Jerusalem had reaped an impressive intellectual and financial windfall. But the true reward of Facing Tomorrow was the ringing affirmation by the international community that Israel has earned its place in the evolving world order. The issues facing Israel and its international partners remain the issues we face today, but then, those can always be tackled once again during the second Israeli Presidential Conference in October 2009. Facing tomorrow, after all, is hardly a task to be faced just once every half-century.
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